Why Should I Care About The PSAT?

by David Bell

Each October, millions of high school juniors (and students in other grades) across the U.S. take the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, better known as the PSAT. As the name suggests, the PSAT is very similar to the SAT, the Scholastic Aptitude Test. However, there are a few important differences. For one thing, the PSAT is a shorter test (139 total questions vs. 154 on the SAT) and is also slightly easier. There are also differences in the scoring scales: A “perfect” score on the PSAT is 760 Verbal and 760 Math, whereas a perfect score on the SAT is 800 Verbal and 800 Math.

However, perhaps the biggest difference is that, in addition to serving as a “preliminary” version of the SAT, the PSAT offers high school juniors a chance to earn National Merit status and the opportunity to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship. Students who score in the top 1% or so of test takers – no mean feat! – can qualify as National Merit Semifinalists and may go on to become Finalists (also known as National Merit Scholars) and qualify for college scholarships of $2,500. Students who score in the top 3% may become National Merit Commended students. Achieving National Merit status can also assist a student in admission to a college or university, in addition to earning other scholarships.

Either of these distinctions, Commended or Semifinalist, is certainly worth pursuing, especially for students who are skilled at these kinds of tests. To achieve National Merit Semifinalist status, a student will have to correctly answer about 90% of the questions on the test. If a student is very good at standardized tests and willing to put in some serious preparation time, this is a worthwhile goal.

There is a second, very important reason why students – especially those who are not likely to achieve the stratospheric score needed to be a National Merit Scholar or Commended student – should see the PSAT as a real opportunity. Taking the PSAT, especially after doing some preparation, is an excellent way to gauge one’s readiness for the SAT. Sitting in a crowded room for three hours taking a timed test also provides students real-world experience that can be valuable when the time comes to take the SAT.

Whether you are a top scorer seeking National Merit recognition or a student who is interested in getting ready for the SAT, there are a few steps you can take to maximize your PSAT score. First, buy a commercially available practice book – there are a number of good ones out there – and take a number of practice sections and even whole tests. Make sure to score each section and review your misses to understand where you need to focus your efforts. Look for patterns – the types of verbal and/or math questions you repeatedly miss. And finally, track your progress as you gain more experience in taking the test.

Remember: The PSAT is a highly predictable test, so with hard work and a strategic approach, you absolutely can improve your score on the PSAT, prepare to do your best on the SAT, and, if you are fortunate enough to excel at taking standardized tests, have a shot at National Merit status.

Dave Bell, who organizes ACT and SAT workshops for area high schools and not-for-profit organizations, can be reached for answers to your questions at Dave@thewholekid.com.